Between Jim McElwain and Jimbo Fisher, it’s a toss-up trying to figure out which football coach feels more exasperated at this moment. All we know is both the Florida and Florida State bosses, respectively, are watching their programs underachieve and an immediate remedy doesn’t appear in sight.
Here’s how dicey things are for Jim/Jimbo right now: one or both coaches might actually need to win the Florida-FSU game in Gainesville on Nov. 25 just to be bowl eligible.
Seriously, I’m not being overly dramatic. After the season began full of promise, the Gators and Seminoles are flirting with disaster less than halfway through it after losing home games Saturday to bitter rivals.
Florida (3-2), on a day where it honored the memory of late rocker and Gainesville icon Tom Petty, might be in the midst of their own “Free Fallin’” after a blasé performance in losing 17-16 to LSU. At the same time, the Seminoles (1-3) were virtually eliminating themselves from ACC contention. They allowed Miami to throw a 23-yard touchdown pass with six seconds remaining for a 24-20 victory, which snapped UM’s seven-game losing streak in the series.
Not surprisingly, both fan bases are venting on message boards and social media about their coaches, the coordinators (especially Florida OC Doug Nussmeier and FSU DC Charles Kelly), and the popular standby of questionable play-calling. Some of the rants are certainly valid, and neither McElwain or Fisher is disputing the need to orchestrate a quick turnaround.
At one point in his post-game presser, Fisher said: “We’ll coach them better, blame it on me.”
Of course, blaming is what fans do best when things start to go south. And looking at the remaining schedule, there’s no guarantee Florida or FSU will get to the mandated six wins to go bowling, not after hurricane issues forced the cancellation of games against rent-a-victims Northern Colorado and Louisana-Monroe, respectively.
It’s not inconceivable that the Gators could lose at home Saturday to Texas A&M, to No. 4-ranked Georgia at EverBank Field, and South Carolina. Unless the Seminoles gain a split with Louisville and No. 2-ranked Clemson, they’re staring at 5-5 or possibly 4-6 entering the season-ender against UF.
But the immediate concern for McElwain and Fisher is fixing what’s broken. The Gators remain the same bland, unwatchable offense (No. 102 in the country at 347.2 yards) they’ve been in 32 games under McElwain and the five seasons before his arrival.
There are numerous damning stats to illustrate the ongoing ineptness of UF’s offense, but this one might be the most compelling: the Gators have just 12 red-zone penetrations this year. Only Wyoming, UTEP, Rice, Georgia State, Georgia Southern and Kent State have less among 129 FBS teams.
What must the ol’ ball coach, Steve Spurrier, have been thinking in the maddeningly incompetent fourth quarter against LSU? Florida’s offense was so disjointed, and mysteriously slow in getting plays off, that it failed to even get into field-goal range on the last three possessions for Eddy Pineiro to try and redeem himself for a critical missed PAT.
Further northwest, Fisher has an equally challenging repair job. The Seminoles have issues with nearly every facet of their offense — though quarterback James Blackman has performed admirably – because of inconsistent line play.
But as the Miami game illustrated, FSU’s problems aren’t confined to just one side of the ball. The defense, after pitching a first-half shutout, came undone in the second half.
If you’re an FSU fan, the most bothersome thing should be allowing Miami to march 75 yards down the field in 1:18 to win the game – mysteriously playing man-to-man press coverage on Malik Rosier’s 23-yard TD pass to Darrell Langham, no less.
Afterwards, you’d think Fisher, one of the most demanding coaches in the profession, would have been more critical of his team’s performance. Instead, he congratulated the ‘Noles after extending the same compliment to Miami.
Now wait a second. You just lost a second consecutive home game for the first time since 1974, and to your biggest rival at that. What coach gives his players a public pat on the back in such a low moment for a program with massive expectations?
The Seminoles haven’t been 1-3 since Gerald Ford was in the White House (1976). Anybody coaching a program of FSU’s pedigree should never imply or even flirt with a moral-victory reference. That’s so Darrell Mudra, and if you don’t know who that is, look it up.
There’s no way FSU or Florida can continue on this path without Fisher and McElwain making changes, either with their staff or philosophy or both. McElwain isn’t on a hot seat yet, but without a national title on his resume like Fisher, there has to be a greater sense of urgency in Gatorland.
McElwain hasn’t built enough cache in Gainesville to feel totally comfortable about his job security. He will likely get a fourth season in 2018, but the oncoming train that is the Georgia Bulldogs could make things sticky with a blowout win over Florida, especially when you consider AD Scott Stricklin didn’t hire McElwain.
These are tense times for the Gators and Seminoles. It’ll be interesting to see how well McElwain and Fisher can navigate through the uncertainty. Being on the brink of a lost season in early October isn’t where either of them expected to be.
Gene.firstname.lastname@example.org: (904) 359-4540